LANSING — Youngstown, Ohio, became a platform for an experiment on how community engagement in repurposing vacant lots can influence violent crime.
Demolition of abandoned buildings became a widely accepted strategy “to address deteriorating abandoned buildings in cities with a concentrated vacancy,” according to a recent study by researchers from the University of Michigan, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other institutions.
Lots that are left empty after demolition can attract criminal activity, according to the study in the American Journal of Community Psychology.
But community engagement in cleaning up and greening vacant lots, as happens in Flint and Youngstown, can help reduce violent crime.
The study focused on Youngstown, which had 4,000 vacant properties that needed to be demolished in 2016, according to the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp.
Under the FBI’s definition, violent crime includes homicide, robbery, arson and rape, according to lead author Catherine Gong, a data analyst for the research project and a U-M graduate in statistics.
The study found the reduction in violent crime was greatest when local residents rather than professionals mow the lots.
But even professional mowing helped: “Street segments in areas receiving community-engaged maintenance or professional mowing experienced greater declines in violent crime density than street segments in areas receiving no treatment,” it said.
“The community engagement [model] saw a reduction of over two crimes per square mile, while the professional [mowing model] had a reduction of slightly under one crime per square mile,” said Laney Rupp, the center manager at the Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center and a researcher at U-M’s School of Public Health.
If lots in the neighborhood are left without attention, research shows a seasonal spike in violent crimes, said Rupp, a coauthor of the study.
Rupp said, “Some of the projects that they did (in Youngstown), they cleaned these tires and painted them and there were plantings, so there was this higher level of investment than just mowing.”
The study is based on the theory of busy streets. To describe it, Rupp points to the broken windows theory.
“When you have one broken window, it attracts more disorder. People feel unsafe, and they’re less likely to go out of their houses. And there is a negative spiral of neighborhood decline,” said Rupp.
The busy streets theory is the opposite.
“If you engage residents and improve their neighborhoods, they’ll get to know each other, they’ll build social resources. They’ll then feel like their environment is safer and more orderly. They might be more likely to go outside,” said Rupp.
Gong said, “It is a good way to work on crime prevention, but it needs to be sustainable. It can be hard.”
She said that there should be compensation for such work, and gave the example of Flint’s Clean & Green program that started in 2004.
In 2022, the program funded 800 residents who maintained around 3,600 vacant parcels, according to Michael Freeman, the executive director of the Genesee County Land Bank Authority that started the program.
The other authors of the study are from the U.S. Forest Service, Rutgers University and Columbia University.
Vladislava Sukhanovskaya reports for Great Lakes Echo.